MESA, Ariz. — It took five years, more than 200 professional innings, six affiliates, a major role change, and a career-threatening surgery—one that wiped out nearly two full seasons of his life—but the baseball gods are finally smiling down upon Drew Steckenrider.
The big right-handed reliever is one of seven men the Miami Marlins sent to the Arizona Fall League this offseason, and in his first six appearances for the Mesa Solar Sox, he’s done everything that could be asked of him and then some: eight innings, four hits, no runs, one walk, eleven strikeouts, two wins, two saves, and even a no-hitter to his name while wearing the Marlins’ big league uniform and facing the very best prospects pro ball has to offer.
Forgive him, then, if it seems like everything’s coming up Milhouse out in Mesa right now, because you know what? It’s about time.
In many ways, Steckenrider’s story epitomizes the path of so many relief pitchers in pro ball: begin as a starting pitcher, struggle through mediocrity and/or a serious injury (Tommy John surgery in 2013 lost him 18 months), live out the daily monotony of rehab and recovery, find yourself banished to the anonymity of the bullpen, and play out a few summers in the game before finding something else to do. Only the University of Tennessee product’s story doesn’t include that last part, because the elbow surgery—and subsequent move to the bullpen—awoke in Steckenrider a dominant late-inning bulldog that has fast become the envy of many a relief hopeful.
It all starts in 2015. Finally healthy after the long, arduous recovery from elbow ligament replacement surgery, Steckenrider split the summer between Low-A Greensboro and High-A Jupiter. He also split the year between the bullpen and the rotation, making 13 starts and another 12 relief appearances in what proved to be a decent, but not overwhelming, season (5-6, 3.00 ERA with 78 strikeouts across 96 innings).
Things really clicked this summer, though, when the Marlins stopped the swingman madness and stuck him in the ‘pen for good. Finally cemented in a late-inning role, and on firm footing a full year past the elbow rehab process, Steckenrider was lights out: 14 saves in 40 appearances with 71 strikeouts against just 19 walks in 52 innings and a paltry .141 opponents’ batting average across Jupiter, Double-A Jacksonville, and Triple-A New Orleans. Impressed, the Marlins handed him an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star nod and shipped him off to Mesa for the AFL season and, well, here we are.
“Honestly, my elbow always bothered me even before my surgery, so once I got it fixed, it was a night and day difference,” Steckenrider told Today’s Knuckleball before a recent game in Mesa, sharing how and when he finally started to get right. “That’s the biggest part. Nothing bothers me with it any more, which I’m thankful for. But I think the Marlins just put me in a role where I can have success, and I obviously did this year.”
Now, pitchers won’t always say it—they’re just thankful for the work, especially affable guys like Steckenrider—but being a swingman sucks.
You start a game on Monday, go through recovery for a few days and then, instead of a side session, find yourself coming back full-bore out of the bullpen by Wednesday or Thursday. Think of it this way: It’s what Jon Lester just did for the Chicago Cubs, but it’s every single week. That’s a tough double role to straddle, both physically and mentally, because every other outing is different when you take the ball like that, and different is bad when you’re desperate to find a routine—and the success that so often follows.
“I would start, and then I’d do my arm care stuff, but then I’d be out in the bullpen a few days later, which, I would never get the recovery, and I never got the rhythm and the bounce-back time,” Steckenrider admitted about his difficult role in 2015. “It was really hard to have success. But this year, I finally got into that consistent role in the back end of the bullpen, and I earned my spot back there early. It was nice because I stayed there all year, but I also got into a good routine with the trainers and strength coaches, and that kept me healthy and on the field.”
Don’t underestimate the importance of something as simple as being able to stay on the field, especially when, like Steckenrider, you suffer years of elbow pain only to finally reach the point where a surgery and the challenging, lonely rehab that follows become necessary to continue your career. It’s a victory in the first place for any pitcher to have returned to game action after that. It’s doubly a coup that the rehab eternity taught Steckenrider previously-overlooked off-field habits that so drastically inform his dominant success now two years later, here in 2016.
“Well, I never really had a routine before this, I didn’t even have a routine in college,” he admitted about his pre-game and between-outing workouts, strength training, and arm care. “So I had to do a lot of work with Ben Cates, our trainer in High-A this year, and I was really thankful to have him. He was really the one who got me on the routine that I still use to this day. It was actually kind of fun to find my own routine, and I’m really glad that I found one, and that I had him to help me find that one, because it worked.”
Different players get different things out of the Arizona Fall League. For some, it’s a bid to get much-needed playing time after injuries derail a regular season’s schedule. For others, it’s a way to put on the finishing touches here at the doorstep of The Show—a baseball graduate school, if you will. For others still, perhaps it’s a way for organizations to showcase their prospects in the hopes of creating the seeds of what could be a blockbuster move during the Winter Meetings.
For Steckenrider, regardless of how he or the Marlins may see it, it feels like there’s a victory lap component here. He had a breakout year, beat all the odds of the past several summers, and he earned this one, no longer an anonymous arm down in the ‘pen.
Enjoy Mesa, kid.
Then again, Steckenrider is a power reliever with plus velocity and swing-and-miss stuff. He reached Triple-A in 2016. He’s peaking at the right time. Maybe this is something of a baseball graduate school for him, too, because come next spring, he’ll be in the mix when the Marlins figure out bullpen depth to face down the NL East.
Steckenrider knows that.
“We’ve got guys on our team this fall who were in the big leagues this year, so it’s cool to play with them because you hear their stories, and see how thankful they are for the experience up there,” he said. “And from them, you learn that you have to keep showing up every day and working hard until you get to where you want to be. But I can’t control what happens to me next year, [the Marlins’ front office] is going to make decisions based on what’s best for the team, and at a certain time, maybe me being up there isn’t what is best for the team.
“I hope it is, obviously,” he continued, smiling. “But you never know. And that means I just have to focus on what I can control.”
After five tough years, Drew Steckenrider should navigate that just fine, even as the spotlight turns his way.
He’s got a routine now, after all.